At the beginning of 2021, I started talking about the Small Group Boom. As COVID numbers were descending, a pattern began to emerge in several disciplines reminiscent of the aftermath of the Spanish Influenza in 1918-1919. After that period, people began to travel extensively both domestically and internationally. Then, of course, came the Roaring 20’s. The Spanish Influenza was never mentioned again even though it didn’t entirely disappear until the 1950s when it was overcome by Bird Flu (see this 1997 New Yorker article by Malcolm Gladwell). Sorry for that bit of bad news.
The churches I coached anticipated a great reduction in COVID cases and prepared for the Small Group Boom, then the Delta variant appeared. No one was prepared for that. The Small Group Boom of 2021 ended up being more of a Small Group Bump, but it was a significant bump. These churches ended up with more small groups than they ever had and more people in groups than ever. And, more of their groups continued. In places where we might have launched hundreds of new groups in more normal times, we launched dozens of new groups instead. They were “COVID successful.”
The church I am serving as Life Group Pastor in Lansing, Michigan saw a group increase of 176% in 2021. The senior pastor led the church in two alignment series which we self-produced. We started the year with 20% of their 1,500 adults in small groups and ended the year with 60% in groups. We are launching a third alignment series in February to reach our goal of 80% of adults in groups. This is both the in-person worship attendance (1,000) and the online worship attendance (500).
While everyone has been forced to adapt to the changing culture produced by the pandemic, many of the best practices taught in Exponential Groups are working very well. Inviting people to start their own groups is working. Gathering a group of friends is working. Coaching every new leader is working. Offering a next step series for groups to continue is working. And the Holy Spirit is working to transform lives and make disciples in groups. With a dose of flexibility regarding when, where, and how a group meets, these strategies have proven successful.
Here’s what’s different:
1. People have re-evaluated their priorities.
During the pandemic, most people divested themselves of everything – social activities, church activities, commuting to work, hobbies, and pretty much everything else. Once people had a “blank slate” on their calendar, they’ve been choosier about what to bring back. For many people, their calendars are not nearly as full now as they were at the beginning of 2020. That’s not necessarily a bad thing.
2. Uncertainty produces a lack of commitment.
Preach what is certain. With so much uncertainty in politics, economics, supply chain (when have you ever worried about the supply chain), race relations, local schools, and many other things, you can give them what is certain. As Jesus said, “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away” (Matthew 24:35, NIV).